We search for human immortality and eternal youth, and pray to everlasting gods, but in the universe as in life, change is the only constant.
Last August my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill toward the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. It was a marriage we had all hoped for. The two families had known each other with affection for years. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.
It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age 10, or 20. As we moved together toward that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me that she’d started her first period. Now, she was 30. I could see lines in her face.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?
The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. Once, the continents were joined. Once, the air was ammonia and methane. Now it is oxygen and nitrogen. In the future, it will be something else. The sun is depleting its nuclear fuel. And look at our own bodies. In the middle years, skin sags and cracks. Eyesight fades. Hearing diminishes. Bones shrink and turn brittle.
Just the other day, I had to retire my favorite shoes, a pair of copper-colored wingtips that I purchased 30 years ago to wear at a friend’s graduation. For the first few years, all I had to do to keep the shoes looking spiffy was polish them. Then, the soles began to wear down. Every couple of years, I would take my wingtips to a small shoe repair shop I knew to have new soles installed. The shop was run by three generations of an Italian family. In the early years, the grandfather worked on my shoes. Then he died and his son took over the job. The resoling kept my shoes going another 20 years. My wife begged me to surrender. But I loved those shoes. They reminded me of me in my salad days. Eventually, the upper leather of the shoes became so thin that it cracked and split. I took the shoes back to the shop. The cobbler looked at them, shook his head, and smiled.
Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.
Consider the world of living things. Why can’t we live forever? The life cycles of amoebas and humans are, as everyone knows, controlled by the genes in each cell. While the raison d’être of the majority of genes is to pass on the instructions for how to build a new amoeba or human being, an important fraction of genes concerns itself with supervising cellular operations and replacing worn-out parts. Some of these genes must be copied thousands of times; others are constantly subjected to random chemical storms and electrically unbalanced atoms, called free radicals, that disrupt other atoms. Disrupted atoms, with their electrons misplaced, cannot properly pull and tug on nearby atoms to form the intended bonds and architectural forms. In short, with time, the genes get degraded. They become forks with missing tines. They cannot quite do their job. Muscles, for example. With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.
In fact, most of our body cells are constantly being sloughed off, rebuilt, and replaced to postpone the inevitable. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups, and no instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting down and wait for the end. No, thank you.
Despite all the evidence, we continue to strive for eternal youth and human immortality; we continue to cling to the old photographs; we continue to wish that our grown daughters were children again. Every civilization has sought the “elixir of life”—the magical potion that would grant youth and immortality. In China alone, the substance has one thousand names. It is also known in Persia, in Tibet, in Iraq, in the aging nations of Europe. Some call it Amrita. Or Aab-i-Hayat. Or Maha Ras. Mansarover. Chasma-i-Kauser. Soma Ras. Dancing Water. Pool of Nectar. In the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, the warrior-king Gilgamesh goes on a difficult and dangerous journey in search of the secret of eternal life. At the end of the journey, the flood god, Utnapishtim, suggests that the warrior king try out a taste of immortality by staying awake for six days and seven nights. Before Utnapishtim can finish the sentence, Gilgamesh has fallen asleep.
We pay good money for toupees and tummy tucks, face-lifts and breast lifts, hair dyes, skin softeners, penile implants, laser surgeries, Botox treatments, injections for varicose veins. We ingest vitamins and pills and antiaging potions and who knows what else. I recently did a Google search for “products to stay young” and found 37,200,000 websites.
But it is not only our physical bodies that we want frozen in time. Most of us struggle against change of all kinds, both big and small. We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his 20-year-old water pump pliers, even though they have been banged up and worn down over the years. Outdated monarchies are preserved all over the world. In the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy has remained essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent in 1563.
I have a photograph of the coast near Pacifica, California. Due to irrevocable erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year. Not much, you say. But it adds up over time. Fifty years ago, a young woman in Pacifica could build her house a safe 30 feet from the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean, with a beautiful maritime view. Five years went by. Ten years. No cause for concern. The edge of the bluff was still 23 feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only seven feet away. Still, she hoped that somehow, someway, the erosion would cease and she could remain in her home. She hoped that things would stay the same. In actual fact, she hoped for a repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, although she may not have described her desires in that way. In the photograph, a dozen houses on the coast of Pacifica perch right on the very edge of the cliff, like fragile matchboxes, with their undersides hanging over the precipice. In some, awnings and porches have already slid over the side and into the sea.
Over its 4.5-billion-year history, our own planet has gone through continuous upheavals and change. The primitive earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool; ice covered the earth; entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the earth continues to change. Something like 10 billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years—first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around 100 million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans, as well as plants.
What about our sun and other stars? Shakespeare’s Caesar says to Cassius: “But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” But Caesar was not up on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star and all stars, including our sun, are consuming their nuclear fuel, after which they will fade into cold embers floating in space or, if massive enough, bow out in a final explosion. Our sun, for example, will last another five billion years before spending its fuel. Then it will expand enormously into a red gaseous sphere, enveloping the earth, go through a series of convulsions, and finally settle down to a cold ball made largely of carbon and oxygen. In past eons, new stars have replaced the dying stars by the action of gravity pulling together cosmic clouds of gas. But the universe has been expanding and thinning out since its big bang beginning; large concentrations of gas are gradually being disrupted, and, in the future, the density of gas will not be sufficient for new-star formation. In addition, the lighter chemical elements that fuel most stars, such as hydrogen and helium, will have been used up in previous generations of stars. At some point in the future new stars will cease being born. Slowly, but surely, the stars of our universe are winking out. A day will come when the night sky will be totally black, and the day sky will be totally black as well. Solar systems will become planets orbiting dead stars.
Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world. Annica, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, annica is one of three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or nonselfhood. According to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things, They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.
If I could only detach from my daughter, perhaps I would feel better.
But even Buddhists believe in something akin to immortality. It is called Nirvana. A person reaches Nirvana after he or she has managed to leave behind all attachments and cravings, endured countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as am ravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, its reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.
To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. Either I am delusional or nature is incomplete. Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself and my daughter (and my wingtips), or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.
If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are neither true nor good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. “The mind is its own place,” wrote Milton, “and can create a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world—the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.
Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So, I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, I-ness dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate, even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place. “A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.”
Suppose I ask a different kind of question: if against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer, its flower opens to reveal silky white petals that encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone lies within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.
Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, and physicist, with a PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard University. His new novel, Mr. G, was published in January. Excerpted from Tin House (No. 51), a quarterly which publishes fiction, poetry, and essays by new and established writers.